The shock wave of images of four US citizens at the mercy of Mexican drug violence in Matamoros, one of the focus of organized crime in the country, spread like wildfire this week in Washington ―through the halls of the Capitol, through the offices of the embassies and of the Joe Biden Administration and by the newsrooms of the mainstream media― to the point of causing an escalation of the most extreme faction of the Republican party against the Mexican government. That barrage has included accusations against the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of a former Trump-era attorney general, William Barr, for not doing enough to combat organized crime and also his response, which revolted at these attacks and denounced their interventionism. “Mexico is respected, we are not a protectorate or a colony of the United States,” López Obrador settled.
The four friends whose trip has sparked the penultimate diplomatic storm had driven from South Carolina to allegedly accompany one of them to undergo cosmetic surgery. They crossed the border through the Brownsville (Texas) pass and, once in Tamaulipas, they ended up in a chase in which up to nine vehicles participated and the outcome of which has been repeated on video over and over again by US cable television these days. Two of them returned home inside a coffin. The other two were found alive on Tuesday and are back in the United States.
The event provided a succulent birdseed for the hawks of the most extreme wing of the Republican Party, who dusted off an old aspiration, as old as, at least, the presidency of Barack Obama, and, later, that of Donald Trump: naming the cartels of drugs as terrorist groups and granting powers to President Biden to launch military operations in Mexican territory under the pretext of stopping the trafficking of fentanyl, a drug that has contributed to once again breaking the record for overdose deaths in the United States: 107,000 in the last year.
Two Republican representatives, Michael Waltz (Florida) and Dan Crenshaw (Texas) introduced a bill in Congress in January that would allow the use of “military force against cartels.” “We cannot allow heavily armed, lethal organizations to destabilize Mexico and smuggle people and drugs into the United States. We need to start treating them like the Islamic State, because that’s what they are.” And this week Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina, joined the tide of a harsh article by Barr in The Wall Street Journal, calling a press conference on Wednesday to promise that the United States “will unleash all its fury and might.” “We will destroy their business model and lifestyle because our security depends on it.” Graham specifically addressed López Obrador, as did Crenshaw: “Why do you protect the cartels?” he asked the Mexican president.
The Republican Party controls the House of Representatives, but the Senate is in the hands of the Democrats, so the initiative of Waltz and Crenshaw has little prospect of success. And if he did, he would run into a wall of legal obstacles to carry it out, and, ultimately, with the opposition of Biden, although no one in his party has come out to discuss those plans: appearing weak with Mexico does not sell politically in the America of the fentanyl crisis and on the way to the 2024 presidential campaign.
Due to this electoral interest, the Matamoros case has permeated especially the argument of a Republican Party fully involved in the pre-campaign. To the insistent resource of the border crisis, the specter of security is thus added, as could be verified last weekend in the speeches of the Conservative Action Political Conference (CPAC), which convenes the most Trumpist faction.
On the other side of the border, the United States is accused of not having recognized its share of responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking. It is a new clash between the country of demand and the country of drug supply. Between a society of consumers plunged into a deep crisis of opioid consumption and another that drags hundreds of thousands of deaths in almost two decades of war against the cartels, the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.
“The problem they have in this country,” a Mexican diplomatic source in Washington said this week, “is that the focus is always on the supply side, and not so much on demand. It is always: ‘look at the poison that the drug traffickers are sending us.’ And they never stop at other edges of a terribly complex problem. For example: in that four out of five addicts to opiates in the United States began thanks to the prescription of painkillers such as Oxycontin. That said, the images this week are terrible, very difficult to counter.
The last presidents of Mexico have had to deal with the pressures coming from the North in terms of security and accentuated after cases such as that of Tamaulipas. But this time, the López Obrador government considers that it has gone too far. “For once we set a position: we are not going to allow any foreign government to intervene, much less the armed forces of a foreign government in our territory,” the president said last Thursday.
“Mexico would never allow something like this,” settled Marcelo Ebrard, the Secretary of Foreign Relations, who hurried his return from a work tour of Asia after the episode of the kidnapping of the Americans. The foreign minister affirmed that the Republican proposal is “unacceptable” and regretted that an anti-Mexican discourse is raised for electoral purposes. “They know that the fentanyl pandemic does not originate in Mexico, but in the United States,” added Ebrard, who warned of “catastrophic consequences for binational cooperation against drugs” if the initiative goes ahead.
“They are speeches for internal consumption, in which there is a nationalist component, but the relationship between the two countries goes beyond all that,” says Roberto Zepeda, an academic at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In his opinion, the scenario of a definitive break is still distant and improbable. Both countries share more than 3,000 kilometers of border, the most intense border flow in the world and commercial activities that exceed 660,000 million dollars a year, according to official data. “Mexico is part of the security perimeter of the United States and it would not be convenient for it to open that front,” he continues, especially in a situation such as the trade conflict with China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
From the Mexican diplomatic circles in Washington, it is remembered that an initiative such as the one being considered has faced in the past the wall of its dubious legality from the point of view of international law. Also, that in the midst of the tensions, López Obrador received Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House adviser for National Security, at the government headquarters at the end of this week to discuss fentanyl and arms trafficking. In other words, what each partner claims from the other: Washington wants to stop drug trafficking and Mexico wants the illegal trade in US rifles to stop feeding the cartels.
In parallel, the US ambassador, Ken Salazar, met in Mexico City with the attorney general, Alejandro Gertz Manero, to discuss the same issues. Since October 2021, both countries announced a new security framework known as the Bicentennial Understanding, which has accelerated the extradition of Mexican drug lords in recent months and the exchange of information to capture them. On Washington’s wish list there are names like Rafael Caro Quintero and Ovidio Guzmán, the son of El Chapo, and the procedures are already underway for them to be brought before the US justice system.
The intention behind these gestures is to show that dialogue can be maintained, despite the noise of recent days.
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